A casual hike in the early 1980’s changed the course of my life. I was a meteorological technician stationed at Alert, a Canadian military site on the upper tip of Ellesmere Island—just a few hundred miles from the North Pole.
I’d persuaded an army buddy to accompany me on a prospecting trip for some of the unique black crystals that were on display at the base. We spent a few hours working our way through a maze of gullies, fording ice-rimmed streams, even crossing paths with a herd of reindeer. Another thirty minutes of walking over relatively level bench land saw us arrive in a narrow valley formed by the bases of the twin mountains we’d chosen as our destination.
Unaccustomed to such treks, I found myself winded and loath to take another step. I set down my pack, lowered an aching body to the ground and tried to put my focus elsewhere. It wasn’t long before I noticed the face of the smallest mountainwas covered with ugly scars.
“Those are holes left by people who were digging for crystals,” my friend said.
“What about the other one?” I asked, indicating the unblemished surface of the larger sister.
“No one goes up there,” he replied. “No crystals.”
We turned our attention to laying out a lunch of sandwiches, fruit and hot coffee. Then, sitting with our backs against the foot of Big Sister, sheltered from the wind yet able to enjoy the sun, we studied the mountain in front of us and contemplated our next task.
My companion wanted to work some of the existing holes on the lower slopes, but something about those excavation marks didn’t sit well with me. I bit into a sandwich, turned my gaze away and looked up at the pristine slopes of Big Sister.
It came to me then, an old Robert Frost poem entitled The Road Not Taken. The implication seemed obvious: Two roads diverged, and I was going to take the one less travelled. Still, I invested a few moments to make sure I really wanted to give up my chance to acquire the rare stones I so admired. In the end, though, I chose to persuade my friend to change targets, to join me in climbing the mountain no one visited.
And what a climb it was! You’d take a step, sink at least ankle-deep into loose shale, then struggle to keep from slipping backward. Two steps up, slide a step back. Sweat poured. A stitch developed in my side. Lungs clamoured for air. Both of us questioned my intelligence.
Until, that is, we reached the summit and found a cairn that couldn’t be seen from the ground. About four feet wide at the base and just as high, the unexpected mound of rough stones made quite an impression.
“Built to last,” my friend commented.
He and I caught our breath. Then, both being convinced the structure served a special purpose, we began to poke and prod the thing. Our excitement was palpable, and justified. Within minutes we discovered a metal pipe protruding from one corner of the cairn’s foundation. In a hollow behind the pipe was a metal box which contained, written on scraps of paper, the names and comments of adventurers who’d come before us. Some dated back to the early 1960’s.
After adding my name to the cache, I walked to the northern edge of the mountain, leaned into the wind, and stared out over the partially frozen Arctic Ocean. To the east, the mountains of Greenland rose upward out of the sea. Inland and to the west, the sun glinted off Ellesmere’s peaks. Some twenty years later, I still consider it one of the perfect moments of my life.
An important lesson was offered to me the day I left my name on that mountain at the top of the world. I learned to walk the unbeaten path, began to understand the importance of taking unique, purposeful actions. And over the years, as this lesson became an ingrained part of my life, it slowly evolved into a guiding attitude
I call it The Philosophy of The Road Not Taken.
The investment world has developed a similar convention known as Contrarianism. Advocates of this path pursue success through views and actions that tend to contradict prevailing wisdom. Sounds about right. Just call me The Contrary Canadian.
Copyright © 2012 Clayton Clifford Bye